Neal Shusterman, Challenger Deep, Walker Books Ltd., August 2020, 336 pp., RRP $18.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781406396119
Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench. Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behaviour. Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence to document the journey with images. Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head. Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny. Caden Bosch is torn.
See, when I read that blurb, I thought I was in for some kind of nautical adventure story. I was familiar with Shusterman’s work from his excellent Arc of a Scythe series and I was expecting a similarly styled narrative with this book. I couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. Challenger Deep is a profound and moving exploration of mental illness; an extraordinary book that transcends genre and strikes the reader to the very core with its raw honesty.
The novel centres on Caden, by all accounts an ordinary 15-year-old kid at school in present day America. It seems clear early on that all is not entirely well with him, but exactly what the problem might be is not instantly apparent. The book is written in the first person from Caden’s perspective, alternating between his life as a teenage boy dealing with teenage problems (school, family, friends); and a different life where he is a sailor aboard a strange pirate ship, bound for uncharted waters. The immediacy of this perspective works extremely well, as it lets us become Caden, to feel what he is feeling and see the world – both outer and inner – through his eyes.
As the story progresses we find that the real world and the world of Caden’s delusion start to blur and blend together, as more is revealed about the real-life events and people that are shaping, influencing and populating the landscape of Caden’s mind. The writing feels almost like a stream of consciousness or a collection of journal entries, and it’s a style that serves the story extremely well.
Shusterman has outdone himself – I was unable to put this book down, I read it solidly for two days. It got under my skin like no book has in a very long time. Every line of every page rings with truth, and that truth was reached through great pain. There’s an author’s note at the end of the book in which Shusterman explains what a deeply personal book this was for him to write, as his son Brendan was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager. There are twelve pieces of artwork that were done by Brendan himself.
I dare say that this book will resonate differently for different people, depending on their level of experience with mental illness. Some might simply find it well-written and interesting, while others may find it hits much closer to home.
Challenger Deep is aimed at readers aged 14 and over.
Reviewed by Christian Price